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The Horror Of The Ordinary: Punch Drunk Love At 20
Eli Goldstone , February 3rd, 2022 12:15

Paul Thomas Anderson's strange romance Punch Drunk Love is a love story, but it's also a horror film about the everyday - a celebration of the creeping anxiety that colours our life, finds Eli Goldstone

“I’ve wanted to, for a long time, make a romantic comedy in the most traditional way…you know, I mean, fuck it up in a non-traditional way,” said Paul Thomas Anderson in an interview in 1998.

The first time I saw Punch Drunk Love I couldn’t work it out. What is this? A romantic comedy? Why was it so unpleasant to watch? I felt like I was being tricked. I’ve seen it several times since, revisiting it — as I do with all Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies — with a thrilling apprehension towards the sheer volume of feelings that I am liable to feel. The score swells like a migraine, Adam Sandler’s character speaks flatly and fails to express himself, he’s constantly interrupted, hiding around corners after awkward social interactions as if he has committed a crime. Who could enjoy an hour and a half spent like this? Who, excepting the sort of freak who doesn’t experience the banality of the everyday as a series of horrors that must be endured and recovered from in the quiet solitude of the evening? The relentless intrusion of things happening over and over again, a dinner as physically jarring as a car crash, one’s desires as impossible to navigate as an unfamiliar apartment building. We are being tricked, of course we are. The film feels like a 90-minute anxiety attack, a horror film dressed in a romcom’s clothing.

It’s because the film is strange and unpredictable that it feels, to me, so realistic. Unlike most romantic comedies, you can’t tell exactly where you are based on what’s happening on screen. Here, a kiss, there a bloody nose. When Barry loses his shit I wonder for a second if we are seeing a fantasy sequence, but no: that’s really him launching that crowbar into someone’s jaw. Because this is the situation that he finds himself in — and it’s no more or less disconcerting to him than having to answer a phone call. It isn’t that the mundane is boring, it’s that it is very frightening.

An important moment happens before the film has begun, when Barry decides to put on the blue suit. When we meet him, he is already wearing it, but it soon becomes clear that he’s never worn a suit like that before in his life. People keep asking him about it. He can’t explain why. And then there are other clues that life could be different. A harmonium mysteriously appears on the street outside his office. He considers it. After all, why shouldn’t he take it? He puts it on his desk. He touches it. It produces a strange sound. The score begins in earnest, and he accompanies the beginning of his own story on an instrument that he doesn’t yet know how to play. And isn’t that nice, that not yet knowing? That is the flip side of inhabiting this particular type of anxiety, of every day opening your eyes and asking: what is this? He asks himself: what can this do? What could we do, together? Who could I be?

In order to take advantage of a promotion to acquire frequent flyer miles, Barry wanders the colour-coded refrigerator aisle of the supermarket. There is the promise of something else on these shelves. He holds the products in his hand. He looks, he is methodical, he whispers, What am I looking for? What am I looking for? Tell me. He quietly asks the universe to solve the mystery of his own desire. He amasses chocolate pudding.

Sandler inhabits the role of Barry Egan with as much discomfort as he does the royal blue suit. He is perfect. He rushes from place to place, alternately chasing and being chased, experiencing uncontrollable bouts of anger towards people and the way that they treat him. This anger is expressed through the destruction of windows, walls, toilet stalls, ultimately frustrated at simply being trapped in a body that wants to break things, that wants things to explode when he touches them. We know, through an anecdote told ad nauseum by the chorus of his seven sisters, that this anger started to express itself in childhood. He is ashamed of his anger, of course. He denies that it happens. He apologises. He goes to the bathroom to do it. The violence is just in him. There is a slapstick moment that could easily come from a very different Sandler vehicle where he accidentally smashes the glass handle of a toilet plunger, but the cadence of it is so strange that it is funny. Barry is distracted by something much worse: the numerous phone calls from his sisters making demands of him, and making fun of him. The splintering of the glass, his brute force, the sound of it — it barely registers among the disgusting cacophony of polite chat and admin.

At the family dinner, after breaking down and admitting to his brother-in-law that he needs help, Barry says, I don’t know if there is anything wrong because I don’t know how other people are. Barry’s selfhood, his own agency, is also frightening in its unknowableness. He often tells white lies, not for anyone else’s sake but his own. He tells Lena that he doesn’t have a crying problem, that the pudding doesn’t belong to him, that he is going to Hawaii on business — he is putting on a new suit, seeing how it looks, seeing how he feels! When he calls a sex line, he asks to be called by a different name. It makes sense that Barry would want to pay for intimacy since it eludes him in everyday life. He understands transactions. He is happy to spend money to get what he wants, as long as he isn’t being cheated. As long as nobody is making fun of him. But the intimacy he wants – a conversation about his life where he lies a little, fluffs the truth, lives out the smallest of fantasies (imagine he has a girlfriend that he could possibly be cheating on! Imagine if his business was going so well that he could afford to… diversify!) – isn’t available to him. Eventually, he realises the mechanics of the interaction are unbendable. He reluctantly sits down, and obeys the instruction to stroke his dick. Once again he is operating at a different frequency from the rest of the world – and of course, for this particular moment, he will have to pay.

Barry meets Lena, a potential romantic interest, while simultaneously trying to avoid the extortion of the Mattress Man and his goons. Both things are very frightening. Barry hates to be treated badly, but when he sees Lena hurt, it propels him to act in a way that transcends the random acts of violence that he is familiar with. He is sure of what he wants, and he finds it within his power to demand it. I have a love in my life. It makes me stronger than anything you can imagine, Barry says as he confronts the man who has become his enemy. There is a quietness around him for the first time. The soft sound of the radio in the shop slowly fades to nothing, and he is still. Perhaps it is love that gives him the courage to stand up for himself, but as I watch the film I can’t help but feel that it is the sudden exposure to the violent undercurrents of life that help him feel comfortable for the first time.

Consider how he acts in love: he stumbles, he loathes the things he says, he lies. Love has unfathomable rules. Where in the building is the correct door, behind which stands a woman who is offering a kiss, and how are we to tell one door from the next, especially knowing as we do the magnitude of what is available to us behind this door and this door only? This is sick making. This can’t be resolved. But when a man is chasing you, and he has stolen from you, and you know that in this situation you are good and he is bad and that’s that? That’s when you can become the hero of your own story.